Tag Archives: trolling

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How Jesus met a pagan fascist through Facebook

“I’m done with Christianity, thank the gods.”

This was my first interaction with Steven Pidgeon, then going by Sigurd, or Vidar, Pidgeon depending on the social media account he was logged into at the time. He posted this response to an Easter advertisement from our church that we had pushed out via Facebook advertising in 2017.

My own personal Facebook policy, for our church’s online presence, is that you should always feed the trolls. So I clicked through to his profile, where I found a man who had apparently recently converted to paganism, sharing memes from the TV show Vikings, and discussing participating in online ‘blots’ — a Norse ritual — with other Norse pagans from around the world. I also found a series of troubling posts about Hitler, and race. Steven, or Sigurd (named for the legendary hero of Norse mythology), turned out to be an interesting man obsessed with Tolkien, white purity, fascist politics, and religion. I noticed that he was based near me, in Brisbane.

“I’ve never met a legit pagan before, I find this fascinating, I see you’re in Brisbane, I’d love to grab a beer and hear your story.”

I posted in this in response.

Steven sent me a friend request. I’ve since learned that Steven loves social media and building connections with all sorts of people from around the world. In our virtual conversations I learned that his back story was even more complicated than I imagined. He’d spent the last 17 years living in a religious community in the Blue Mountains, the infamous Twelve Tribes, a community with a particular view of the end times seeking to recreate twelve tribes, faithful and pure communities, of Christians who will bring about the end times. Before this, Steven had been, as a teenager, a Pentecostal, and then a Mormon. Steven rose through the ranks in the Twelve Tribes. His IQ is off the charts. He learned Biblical Greek and Hebrew, and made trips to the United States to ‘prophet school;’ often acting as a teacher in the community. At some point in the years leading up to his departure Steven became suspicious of Israel as a political entity, and began reading anti-Semitic literature, including Hitler’s Mein Kampf. He found the politics of national socialism intriguing. He also smuggled a phone into the community — which exists cut off from the outside world except through their businesses (like the Yellow Deli café in the Blue Mountains), and their missionary activities. At some point, his interest in politics, and his reading, led him to start his own political party, the Australian Freedom Party. He started to connect with people on social media, and questioning the teachings of the community. The more he knew, the more they unravelled, eventually he decided to exit this group who were like a family to him for most of his adult life. His exit wasn’t straightforward, nor was it straight into paganism, or fascism.

Steven is a convinced theist; his approach to testing truth claims of different religions is ‘full immersion’ — not baptism, though his Pentecostal, Mormon, and Twelve Tribes history mean he’s chalked up double digits for baptisms — he invests himself deeply into the plausibility structures for beliefs; the communities of believers. Steven spent some time in a Buddhist community in the Blue Mountains, and then moved into a Mosque in Sydney. He spent a period of time as a Muslim “revert,” grappling with the text of the Koran, while living in community with Muslim friends, who eventually organised for him to move to Brisbane where he found employment in a kebab shop, and enrolled in a Business degree at Griffith University. His experiences in Christianity, the Twelve Tribes, and Islam, and his interests in politics, and particular, the political vision of national socialist movement Order15, led him to explore and embrace white nationalism, and Odinism as a ‘white’ religion, disconnected from any religion with Jewish heritage. He began to embrace this identity; wearing a Mjolnir hammer around his neck, immersing himself in Norse Mythology, and participating in message boards, and social media groups with other pagans who were embracing the old religion as part of a commitment to ethnic purity. In embracing this identity Steven, who doesn’t do things by halves, adopted a racist persona, and expressed racist sentiments consistent with Naziism and white supremacy, while disconnecting from the Islamic community who had moved him to Brisbane. This extraction process was not without complications — his employment and housing were both connected to Brisbane’s Muslim community. Steven packed all his belongings into a backpack and bought a tent; prepared to embrace life as a wanderer, like those in the epic tales he loved — whether Norse, or from Tolkien. He eventually found a share house, but found himself in a city a long way from family, and friends, only connecting to his new ‘community’ online.

Then Easter happened.

We’d, by chance, themed our Easter series around Tolkien’s view of the Gospels as an epic true fairy story; a theme explored in his On Fairy Stories, where the Gospel and its joyful resolution in the resurrection is the ultimate ‘eucatastrophe’ — the sudden, joyous, turn that gives fairy tales their mythic constitution and quality. Steven and I were able to share a mutual appreciation for Tolkien. He shared my invitation with his pagan friends on Facebook, asking for their advice. Given that we’d become Facebook friends I was able to see, and participate, in this conversation where pagans from around the world suggested he ‘bring an axe’ and ‘be prepared to go full Lindisfarne’ on this Christian priest (Lindisfarne is the site of a famous massacre where Viking pagans put Christian monks to the sword and plundered their relics). Steven was lonely, he loves speaking to people about politics and faith, so he accepted my invitation to share a beer at the pub.

Here he is waiting for our first meeting; not knowing the twist his adventure would take.

I was genuinely fascinated to hear his story; I’d seen John Safran’s segment on modern pagans in John Safran Vs God years before, and despite Steven’s apparent racism and the risk of being smote by an axe, it was obvious that he was an intelligent man with an interesting journey. I committed to sharing a beer with Steven in a safe, and public, space; and I listened to his story. I asked questions. I didn’t, in our first meeting, push back on anything in particular except the idea that the Christianity he rejected looked nothing like orthodox Christian belief. We parted agreeing to keep in touch. I found the experience fascinating, because Steven’s story is truly remarkable. About a month later my wife and I were returning by bus from a football game, and we happened to bump into Steven at the bus stop; he’s not one to believe in coincidence. We chatted briefly at the bus stop, and then a few weeks later he sent me a message. His New Guard movement — a local fascist group — was meeting in the city in a couple of weeks, some of the members of the fascist movement were churchgoers who were planning to go to church after their meeting, but he had decided to come along to our gathering instead. He thought he might try it out this coming weekend to get his head around transport logistics in Brisbane.

His first Sunday was a perfect week for a racist fascist with a history in a community trying to live out the vision of the church in Acts 2 to visit our community. We were in the middle of a Bible overview series, and his visit coincided with our look at Pentecost, and the way the pouring out of the Spirit was the beginning of God’s kingdom expanding to include people of every tribe and tongue and nation. As if to highlight the contrast, the Bible was read that Sunday by a member of our community who is of Indian heritage, and we incorporated the baptism of two Iranian converts into the sermon. Steven hasn’t missed many weeks of church since that day.

Our church shares lunch together after our service, and introducing your multi-ethnic community to a pagan, racist, facist, is an interesting challenge. As a community we have long cherished the idea that people belong before they believe, and can come into our community as they are. We believe that conversation and connection, and the experience of Christian hospitality and love make the Gospel plausible, and that the Gospel has the power to change lives. So Steven was welcomed; he shared lunch with us, and I directed him to one of our members who happens to be a professor in Old Testament (whose Hebrew is much better than mine — but then, so is Steven’s). This member of our church was a safe pair of hands, who again listened to Steven and answered some of his questions about orthodox Christian belief. That day, when Steven went home, he went home questioning whether the Christianity he was ‘done with’ was really Christianity at all; I sent him works by Augustine, Athanasius, and C.S Lewis. He spent the next two weeks watching the entire back catalogue of our church’s sermons that were available online. Over time, as he explored the Reformed theological outlook, Christianity became the lens through which he saw the world. His racist Facebook posts didn’t stop straight away, there was a period of transition. He threw himself into a community of Christians on campus at Griffith (where he was blowing his studies out of the park, recording the highest mark ever given in one subject, and achieving exceptional academic results across the board). Steven was a 37 year old who had never handled money for himself; who had been withdrawn from society for 18 years, missing most pop culture, and plenty of news. He was readjusting to life in the real world, outside the intense communal life of the Twelve Tribes. A couple of months later, in a conversation we were having, Steven and I both realised he had become a Christian; that not only did he believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus, but that Jesus was his Lord and we were seeing the fruit of that in his life, his changed view of others, and his evolving political convictions. Steven had repented; we recognised that to do this and to be able to truly say “Jesus is Lord” was an act of the Holy Spirit. Steven, despite his journey taking him to all corners of the religious globe, had come home. Steven is now my friend. He has been a much-loved member of our church family ever since, and, if not for his desire to own his past and acknowledge his mistakes and the way his journey has developed, almost nobody in our community would know about the darkest chapter in his story. Steven Pidgeon, the online Nazi pagan, has become Steven Pidgeon, our servant hearted, genius, brother in Christ, a man who desires that people from every tribe and tongue and nation meet Jesus, and that he might use his gifts, and the degrees he earns through his study, to serve his neighbours around the globe, in some ways making amends for the horrid views he held for a short period of time.

He now devotes himself to his studies, and his social media posts are much more likely to be about very obscure questions around Ancient Near Eastern inscriptions (where our Old Testament lecturer’s PhD work on Akkadian language came in handy), reflections on what he is hearing at church, or his experiences as a Law Student at university. This reflects how he spends his time and energy in real life.

This week a group of Antifa (anti-fascist) activists unearthed the archives of IronMarch, a web portal for Nazis and fascists that Steven contributed to up until 2017. He was named and shamed as an Australian neo-Nazi. Those doing the shaming were not prepared to accept that transformation is possible, and reached out to different groups and institutions Steven has connected to since repudiating paganism, and the Nazi, or ‘Alt-Right’ movement. I’m sharing this story now because Steven has genuinely changed, and is genuinely a member of a church community committed to a cause that is fundamentally opposed to fascism. I share Antifa’s issues with fascism, and Naziism, in all its forms; but it might be that there are better methods for changing hearts and minds; it might be that the Gospel of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit can bring about an amazing transformation in someone’s politics, and this doesn’t happen by exposing, “doxxing,” or attacking a person you’ve never met on the internet, but by meeting them face to face, connecting, understanding, and loving your ideological enemy, and inviting them to experience a community living out a thoroughly different politics. Maybe our world needs more people sitting down for a beer with those we oppose, rather than entering a vicious cycle of trolling and insults.

Maybe Easter changes everything.

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Daring to feed the trolls: 8 tips for responding when trolls attack

troll

Image source: Threadless

What do you do when a small band of trolls attacks you, or your church, online? Whether its a bunch of people rocking up to vandalise your Facebook page, or people invading the comments section of your website, whether it’s someone known to you, or a stranger, how are you going to respond to trolls? What’ll you do if some disgruntled member of your community turns to a trolling community and asks them to target your page just for LOLs?

I confess, I hadn’t really thought about this specifically until a merry band of trolls turned up dropping offensive comments and 1* reviews on our church Facebook page on Saturday. It’s very hard to undo the sort of damage they do to your rating (but if you pick a church based on its Facebook rating, we need to talk). We received a tip-off that the comments were coming from a Facebook group dedicated to trolling, after somebody looking to cause a bit of trouble and damage decided to target our page; so I decided to head into the troll’s den to see what I could learn, and I replied to a handful of the reviews. I think it went ok.

The trolling stopped soon after; but it’d be easy to get a little bit stirred up if a bunch of vandals started wreaking whatever havoc they could on your Facebook wall. It’s in events like this that your approach to social media, and Jesus, really gets tested, and I had these handy principles bouncing around in my head as I replied. This stuff might all be obvious, but it is a fusion of PR principles and Gospel principles, which I’m in a position to offer, so having this framework might be useful for someone else when trolls attack.

1. Love your troll: Remember the inherent image-bearing dignity of the troll

If trolls are guilty of forgetting that the people at the other side of the pixels they create are people, with feelings, and families, and stories, and anxieties and pain, then it’d be a shame if we forgot that about them when responding. Trolls aren’t, by their nature, being particularly nice, but they’re people, and there has to be some sort of motivation for becoming a troll. Because they’re people, they’re people who are fearfully and wonderfully made by God and their trolling doesn’t totally eradicate the image of God in them. How we treat people who are hurting, and who are hurting us, privately or publicly (and if you’re responding to a troll it’s likely going to be public) shows what we believe about humanity, and about who’s ultimately in control. There are also these fine words of Jesus to consider, not to mention his example as he’s beaten, nailed to a cross, and jeered.

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Matthew 5:11-12

2. Pray for your troll.

Your troll is a person; a person who might one day put their trust in Jesus and be a person you spend eternity with; an immortal who will be made to be gloriously like Jesus. So maybe rather than tearing into them with your wit, or your perfectly planned response, you could pray for them first. That God might be at work in their heart.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven…” — Matthew 5:43-45

3. Respond by taking up your cross; not your sword (or fighting pen)

Thinking this way about your troll; remembering that even if they’re acting like your enemy, you’re called to love them, should take a little sting out of your response. Sure, they’re probably saying stupid and hurtful things about you, and probably about Jesus too — and there’s a real cost to that. But part of loving and forgiving our enemies is taking on that cost and not paying it back in kind.

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. — Matthew 5:38-41

The pay-off, of sorts, is that in responding this way you actually score a win for the good guys. Responding in kind — repaying evil with evil, makes you evil and loses your neutral audience.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. — Romans 12: 17-21

Plus, if you can’t love your enemies when they’re flinging some words at you, what are you going to do when they want to crucify you?

If you have confidence that Jesus really is king, and the cross is really a victory, then you don’t have to grab a sword (or the ‘mighty pen’) to respond to an attack, you can keep taking up your cross.

“Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. — Matthew 26:52

4. Criticism and crisis are an opportunity to show what you believe is truer and better than the alternatives

This is the best thing I learned (apart, perhaps, from the persuasive power of stories) working in public relations, and especially crisis management. You get more attention in a crisis; people are watching to see how you respond. A crisis is a chance to demonstrate the coherence and consistency of what you stand for, because if you can’t stand under pressure then what you stand for is basically useless. A crisis is a chance to respond in an unexpected way that demonstrates your point of difference. Fight fire with fire and nobody will be able to tell you apart from the person trying to burn you… but be different, and the contrast is greater still.

If you can’t respond to a troll with the Gospel — the good news of Jesus, his rule over your church and his example being what guides your response because at the heart of the Gospel is God’s love for you — who’ve chosen to be his enemy —  then you need to check that the Gospel really is your ‘key message’… the great thing about the Gospel is that it is the best and most disarming response to a troll. What power does someone who wants to harm you have when you know that Jesus wins, but that he wins by being crucified by God’s enemies.

5. Respond with Humour — especially at your own expense (don’t take yourself too seriously)

Being combative or unnecessarily defensive when everyone can tell your troll is a troll is what gives a troll their power and satisfaction. They want to cost you time and attention. They want you to get grumpy. Do the opposite. If you are quicker to admit your faults and failings than they are to point them out, you rob the troll of any power to say anything particularly hurtful. This makes you look human to those looking on, and like your identity doesn’t depend on the words of your ‘enemy’ — it shows that your identity and security lie else where. And that’s a good thing for those of us who are in Christ.

6. Humbly avoid getting into a silly argument, or exchanging insults, with your troll

Nothing wastes more time online than stupid arguments; and often the reason these arguments waste such time is a prideful desire to win, or to defend yourself and your reputation over and over again in the face of silly attacks. This point, and the next one, may mean that sometimes you shouldn’t respond at all.

It’s very easy to slip into the idea that thriving online, particularly on social media, is about getting as much attention as possible, and about managing your reputation so that you amplify Jesus’ reputation. But his reputation is amplified when we are humbly confident in him. His reputation is damaged when we argue and joke and bicker like the trolls who are trying to make life difficult for us. Your presence on social media — as a church, or a Christian, isn’t about you, but about Jesus. You are God’s media — his image bearers who are being transformed into the image of Jesus. You represent him, not yourself. So be prepared to let it go, and realise, when you don’t, it’s Jesus you’re representing with your words. Stay humble (this also helps you be self-deprecating).

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. — Romans 12:2-3

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves…Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life.  — Philippians 2:3, 14-16

Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. — Ephesians 5:4

Avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly. — 2 Timothy 2:16

7. Use wisdom to decide whether or not you should even reply

Turning the other cheek is an active thing, not just passive, so you might have to offer yourself up to your troll; but that’s not always the wisest course of action. Responding is the absolute best way to feed a troll if you don’t respond in such a way that it de-escalates the situation. There’s wisdom in responding well, and it might take wisdom to realise that not responding at all is the best bet. I lean towards responding because of the next point. But Proverbial wisdom reminds us that there’s a paradox to navigate here so that we don’t end up looking like we’re part-troll ourselves.

Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
    or you yourself will be just like him.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
    or he will be wise in his own eyes. — Proverbs 26:4-5

One thing to bear in mind on social media is that there are many people watching — not just the fool who might be wise in his or her own eyes, but the friends of the fool, and your friends too. There’s risk involved in replying so be careful.

8. Respond with the Gospel; invite your troll to de-trollify by meeting Jesus

Your troll is a person; your response to their warped view of God’s world, his king, and his people, is a chance to model the Gospel, but, in your love for your troll, it’s also a chance to model the Gospel directly to a person who has taken the time to engage with you, who wants to waste your time in conversation (albeit to score points and LOLs), why not follow the steps above and see if you can also attempt to persuade your troll to give up their trolly ways, or at least have those looking for LOLs second guessing just how funny or effective that trolling is.

Bonus Tip

Always try to move the interaction from the safety and comfort of the computer screen to the real world. It’s much harder to troll a real person. It’s also the pattern of the Gospel to move from ‘disembodied word’ to ‘word in the flesh.’ Plus, it’s just surprising.

Barefoot and fancy free

Well, the Barefoot Bum doesn’t like me. He called me a very rude word (that I won’t repeat here – don’t click the link if harsh language offends) in his latest post. And an authoritarian to boot. A Nazi even. Seems Godwin’s law doesn’t apply when you’re a raging atheist. Neither does context.

He didn’t like this comment I put on the previous thread:

If God is not hidden and the “priest, prophets, pundits” are his chosen messengers then you have every reason to believe me and/or them. Why would God personally reveal himself to you because your logic demands it? That doesn’t make any sense. When does a subject ever tell their ruler what to do in that manner?

Because somehow that’s “authoritarian” and I’m a Nazi.

“Nathan is essentially demanding that I obey him (or his chosen priests & prophets) because he asserts that he speaks in the name of god, and he denies any obligation whatsoever to justify his authority. [bad language removed] If you want me to do something, then make me. All “subjects” can demand their “ruler” coerce them. So coerce me.

*I have no idea if Nathan will alter the content of the comment; he doesn’t strike me as being any more honest than he is intelligent. I’ve reproduced the accurately and in full, adding emphasis to the particularly [Again, Bad language removed] authoritarianism.”

Right, so I’m neither honest, or intelligent, I’m a fan of censorship, authoritarianism and a Nazi. This guy knows me well.

“But don’t think that you have any right to escape criticism and condemnation for your slavish submission to authority or your demand that I submit to your authority.”

Slavish submission?

Here are some thoughts on the matter.

  1. Writing something on your own blog does not make it truth.
  2. Writing something in the comments of someone else’s blog also doesn’t make it true – no matter how insulting or ridiculous you find their arguments.
  3. Declaring something loudly on your blog and having your commenting sycophants back you up also does not make your statement truth.
  4. Being insulting to people you’ve never met does nothing for your cause.
  5. Showing disregard for context without questioning the context and posting inflammatory posts about people you’ve never met also does nothing for your cause.
  6. Burying your head in the sand on any counterpoints to your opinion will never end well.
  7. Logical fallacies are only logical fallacies if you presuppose that your opponent is irrational and illogical.
  8. You will always win an argument if you set the parameters and the parameters naturally exclude the person you are arguing with.
  9. If God exists then it’s not up for us to set the parameters for considering his existence on natural law. If God exists the concept of “natural law” does not apply past what we are capable of observing.
  10. The Friendly Atheist is actually friendly by comparison to this particular atheist.
  11. If you remove the fundamental authority and evidential standard from any argument – it falls over. So you can’t ask a Christian not to argue from their understanding of the Bible, a Muslim not to argue from their understanding of the Qu’ran or an Atheist not to argue from their understanding of Science*. All are equally subjective.
  12. As a follow up point from point 11 – atheists expect Christians to familiarise themselves with science, and Christians often do so superficially which frustrates Atheists – but when it comes to the “theistic” evidence they’re only prepared to take a superficial understanding of theology to the table. Because that’s easier to refute.

*Capitalised to indicate usage as a proper noun not the verb.